“I am the Father of Positive Psychology, not Learned Helplessness”, Martin Seligman says

Martin Seligman & Nico RoseIs a scientist (morally) responsible for his scientific discoveries? In a way yes, I would guess. If you help to develop the atomic bomb (knowing what kind of destruction it´ll cause…) and put it in the hand of the military, you´re at least partly responsible in case it is actually used. But what if somebody else (unknowingly…) takes your scientific discovery – and uses it in a way that is fundamentally the opposite of what you intended it to be?

Because this is what happened to the co-founder of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman. Over the last couple of weeks, Marty was mentioned in several articles covering the “CIA torture report”, e.g., here in the New York Magazine. Supposedly, two psychologists that helped the CIA to develop “more efficient” torture methods said they were “inspired” to do so by research on the subject of learned helplessness, a framework that was first described by Marty in the late 1960s (this was his breakthrough as an internationally acclaimed researcher; here´s one of the first articles on the subject from 1967), and that was subsequently used to develop effective treatment methods for depression.

Some articles even (falsely!) claimed that Marty was directly involved in the development of torture methods. For instance, this so happened in the “Spiegel” (“Mirror”), Germany´s leading weekly magazine on politics and culture. Luckily, I was able to help Marty to some extent with my knowledge of the German media system. At the end of the day, an intervention led to a significant reformulation of central aspects of the article. The newspaper even apologized to him for having made those false claims.

If you are interested in the development of the concept of learned helplessness and its (alleged) role in torture methods (and Marty´s thoughts and feelings on this unfortunate issue): there´s a superb article on this topic by Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker.

#NotJustSad: Why we desperately need Positive Reinforcement and Flow to be Happy

Over the last couple of days, the hashtag #NotJustSad has been a trending topic on the German Twitter feed. It was created by a journalist in order to raise awareness for depression and was quickly picked up by mainstream media. The goal was to counter the popular notion that people with depression just need to “get their act together” in order to be “normal” again.

Quite obviously, there are different types of depression – or rather, different ways for depression to “arise”. Some types are clearly endogenous, a sickness of the body, e.g., as a by-product of a strong and continuous imbalance with regard to certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin.

Yet, over the last days, I was also strikingly reminded of how our everyday behavior may either promote or act as a buffer against bouts of (minor) depressive episodes. Today, I was in a very bad mood all day long. I suffered from what typically is called cabin fever. For the last seven days, I had to stay at home because of “hand, foot and mouth disease”, a pretty harmless but highly contagious and annoying children´s malady I acquired from the Little Guru. When it hits you hard, you´re basically unable to walk for a couple of days, and in addition, you´re mostly incapable of using your hands thanks to painful blisters. As a consequence, I ended up watching TV for most of the time, I managed to get through three seasons of “The Walking Dead” and some other enthralling stuff.

So you could say I was pretty amused most of the time. But still my mood declined from day to day, culminating in today´s bout of huffishness. So I finally went out for a coffee and thought about my situation. Seen through the lens of Positive Psychology, I guess this is what happened: over the last days, I suffered from…

For me, this is a strong reminder of how “intentional activity” is crucially important for our (psychological) well-being. Watching TV can generate a feeling of flow, but it is a fake kind of flow. Yes, I was excited and had fun. Yes, I (sort of) met new people (and a lot of zombies…). I might have learned a bit, and I even accomplished something (getting to the end of season three…). But beware – none of that is the real deal.

As I´ve also mentioned in my recent TEDx talk, we have to go out and meet other people. We need to get stuff done in the real world, and the real world has to provide us with feedback. This is not to say that all of us can fight off any kind of depressive episode at all times. But we should all be aware that a stitch in time saves nine…


Nico Rose - Flow

Does unlimited choice make us miserable?

The answer just might be: yes! I´m really looking forward to the next onsite meeting with my 2013/14 fellow MAPP students. One of the guest lecturers will be Barry Schwartz, author of Paradox of Choice. While it is true that having no choice at all makes us impassive and miserable, the other end of the continuum might just be as harmful. In his book, Schwartz argues that having to choose from seemingly unlimited options (think of the variety of cereals in a typical supermarket, or sujects to study, or partners to date) could account for the sharp increase in cases of clinical depression in the western world (especially the U.S.). The explanation:

  • Choosing from more options requires more ‘mental energy’.
  • More options typically also means there are more attractive options, but with different features. Having to make trade-offs makes us unhappy.
  • More options lead to higher opportunity costs after having chosen something in the end.
  • More options lead to higher levels of regret – when the choice has turned out to be wrong.
  • There even exists pre-decision regret – a kind of prospection on how it might feel to have made a wrong choice.
  • More attractive options lead to having higher standards – which in turn leads to liking our choices to a lesser extent.
  • Unlimited choice cultivates a culture of personal responsibility which in turn promotes blaming ourselves for the results.

All this may not be very healthy after all. No time for reading? Just watch Barry´s TED Talk.

‘Politikverdrossenheit’ and the German Bundestag Elections – a Case of ‘Learned Helplessness’?

On September 22, the ‘Bundestag elections’ will take place. The Germans are to decide which political party (or rather, coalition of parties) is to govern the ‘nation of poets and thinkers’ over the upcoming four years. Pollsters are very sure that the Christian Democratic Union (CDU, lead by Angela Merkel) will be victorious – but that does not necessarily mean Merkel will be able stay in the chancellery. The Free Democratic Party (FDP), Merkel´s ‘natural’ coalition partner, may turn out to be too weak to go on with the reigning coalition. Apart from the results per se, I´m really curious to see what the voter turnout is going to be. The following graph (© Wahlschlepper) shows this figure for every Bundestag election since 1949:entwicklung_wahlbeteiligung09

Obviously, there is a steep decline of voter turnout (or rather: a notable increase in the numbers of nonvoters) since the 1998 election that lead to the voting out of Helmut Kohl. Before that, a decline is observable as well, beginning after 1983, the year, Kohl was re-elected for the first time. I guess, all throughout the 80ies, a lot of people (his supporters as well as his opponents) thought Kohl was going to win anyway – so there was no need to show up.

But I feel it´s something else when looking at the years after Kohl´s dismissal. I wonder if this increase in nonvoting behavior can be explained by the theory of Learned Helplessness (LH). Martin Seligman spent most of his career prior to becoming one of the founding fathers of Positive Psychology in the not-so-positive realm, e.g., studying the nature of depression – which eventually led to his formulation of the theory of LH. In an nutshell, this is a psychological state that leads to behaviors such as passiveness and apathy. It can be elicited by exposing subjects to conditions where they repeatedly experience that their actions have no effect on the outcome of future events (e.g., avoiding a painful electric shock). A lack of control with regard to future events makes people impassive – and oftentimes, miserable. So where is the link to the upcoming elections?

Put simply: since Helmut Kohl´s dismissal, in Germany you can pretty much not be sure any more about getting those politics you´ve voted for. And I´m not talking about silly voting pledges here. I´m talking about the fundamentals of what it (supposedly) means to be a ‘conservative’ as opposed to being a ‘liberal’. Lets put aside for the time being that the political landscape in Germany may be a bit more complicated that its U.S. counterpart – mainly due to the existence of several smaller parties in addition to the ‘big two’: the Christian Democrats and the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Now suppose you vote for the Republican party in the U.S., they win – and a certain time after the election, they cut down on the military budget, start to mess with the nuclear power lobby, or think out loud about a financial transaction tax. Or, on the other hand, you vote for the Democrats, they win, and shortly after the election, they lower the top income tax rate, pass a bill that severely cuts the welfare budget, and becomes immensely popular among the nations corporate top executives. Sounds strange? But basically, that is what has happened in Germany over the last decade.

Gerhard Schröder, social-democratic chancellor from 1998 – 2005 (in a coalition with the Greens) has…


By Armin Linnartz via Wikimedia Commons

Angela Merkel, with her ‘conservative’ coalition, on the other hand, since 2005 has:

So is this the reason for the German ‘Politikverdrossenheit’ (disenchantment with politics)? Because we cannot be sure we´ll get what we vote for? Anyway, pollsters say there´s a considerable likelihood for a new edition of the ‘Grand Coalition‘ (a coalition of CDU & SPD). Both Merkel and her opponent, Peer Steinbrück do not grow tired of saying that this would be the worst outcome. But I guess, in secret, that´s a wrap already…